B. M. Pietsch, Dispensational Modernism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015) 262 pp. Hb £47.99. ISBN: 978-0-19-024408-8
This book explores the origins of dispensationalism within early American fundamentalism, calling attention to scientific rhetoric and engineering methods utilised by dispensationalists for interpreting the Bible and understanding the nature of time. The author offers a thought-provoking re-evaluation of a significant modern religious movement that emerged between 1870 and 1920. He skilfully argues that dispensationalism - an evangelical futurist interpretive system for the Bible - has been wrongly dismissed as "anti-modern" and "anti-intellectual" so far. Dispensational Modernism highlights that the movement was indeed both immensely conservative and radically new.
This is not a book about dispensational theology. Instead, it focuses on how the tenets of dispensationalism were built upon modernist epistemic foundations. These foundations comprised an all-encompassing system of attitudes, theories, assumptions, approaches and methods that essentially gave prophecy belief its meaning. Pietsch's publication demonstrates that the story of dispensationalism (or a specific interpretation of texts and time) began as a project to engineer values in American mass culture and expressed a fascination with precision. Contemporary society's interest and confidence in classification and quantification became the centre of the so-called taxonomic mind - which informed dispensational methods, too. Dispensationalists' literal interpretation of the Bible was, however, considered to be anti-intellectual as it appeared to rely on mid-nineteenth-century logic (eg. Baconian induction and common sense reasoning). The followers of the movement were said to have turned their backs on modern science and biblical scholarship instead of striving for advancement, progress and modernity. Pietsch eradicates these stereotypes by showing that the early dispensationalists wholeheartedly embraced scientific and technological methods and engaged in modern research precisely because their mission was to prove that the Bible offered accurate predictions about future events including the Millennium and the Rapture of Christians into heaven. For dispensationalists, knowledge-making required explicit use of methodology. They claimed that the Bible needed in-depth analysis in order for its true meaning to be decoded. Likewise, for them, reliable biblical knowledge required years of specialised study. Only by adhering to these rules could one see that the Bible was an internally coherent whole with a progressive unfolding of meaning. Accordingly, Pietsch's study makes it clear that dispensationalists did not simply restate nineteenth-century beliefs; instead they conducted serious research to acquire sound religious knowledge through taxonomic readings of texts. Similarly to other modernists, dispensationalists insisted on the use of method in order to construct knowledge.
Chapter One delves into the analysis of the taxonomic mind in American mass culture and American Protestantism by tracing social interest in the engineering of values (primarily in the Sunday school movement), which also became the foundation of dispensationalism. Dispensationalists considered biblical prophecy to be a unified whole which gave meaning to the experience of discontinuous time. They attempted to establish a deeper, more scientific interpretation of time by applying complex literary intertextual referentiality. The followers of the movement, however, found themselves opposing Protestant modernists, who argued that the Bible's content and inner meanings must be derived from comprehensive reconstructions of historical contexts.
Chapter Two deals with the concepts and function of professionalisation and specialisation in the organisational histories of early dispensationalism and higher education. Dispensationalists, like other elite thinkers, were concerned about the reputation associated with their position in society, including status, prestige, academic credentials and titles. More so than anything else, they were eager to develop abilities to speak to and for mainstream American Protestantism. They, however, conceived of the mainstream in their own image, assuming that it represented white, male, urban, middle-class concerns, interests and desires.
Both Chapters Three and Four examine the late nineteenth-century battles for true "scientific" biblical interpretation. Chapter Three looks at biblical interpretation and criticism in academic settings. Chapter Four on the other hand, discusses the broader context of these preoccupations, and it uncovers the sources of which dispensationalists made use in order to develop their own form of scientific hermeneutics.
Dispensationalist engagement with time (both history and the future) helped produce the members' understanding of texts. They were not satisfied with reflecting on the meaning of time, though. Instead, they tried to make sense of the present and the future by unearthing the best means for engineering time. Chapters Five and Six introduce dispensationalists' ideas about the meaning and structure of time. These sections describe how the followers of the movement attempted to classify, systematise and thus comprehend time through technological methods.
Chapter Seven illustrates the complicated relationship between dispensational modernism and other popular religious movements. As a basis to dispensational belief and practice, this part of the publication also deals with the twentieth-century history of the Scofield Bible, which had several innovative and unique features. Not only did it contain the text of the Bible, but a commentary on the biblical passages was also part of the Holy Book. In addition, a cross-referencing system linked related verses of Scripture. Most interestingly, however, the 1917 edition also attempted to date events of the Bible. Pietsch offers a thorough and perceptive guide to this pioneering religious book's history.
Dispensational Modernism successfully reassesses the importance of a distinctive branch of American Protestant fundamentalism. The author gives the reader an insight into how early twentieth-century scholars and preachers dismissed dispensational thinking, classifying it as simply anti-intellectual apocalyptic theology based on mistaken hermeneutical assumptions. Pietsch argues that dispensationalists articulated the modern world in their own specific ways, but because opponents often and explicitly emphasised that dispensationalism was not part of the historic faith of the Christian church, many dispensationalists felt victimised by modern culture, even as they embraced it. The book, therefore, effectively demonstrates that the religious quest for knowledge - regardless of denominations - was and remains a prime factor in the global life of Christianity.
The publication's general appearance is good: it is a modern, sturdy hardback with a matt dust jacket depicting a scene of turmoil. Texts, notes and images are crisply reproduced. There is no bibliography at the end of the book, but the notes and the index are useful features.
Dr Teodora Domotor, University of Surrey